Mary Robison Robison, Mary - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mary Robison 1949–

American short story writer and novelist.

The following entry provides criticism of Robison's work through 1991. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 42.

Robison is considered a primary proponent of the so-called "minimalist" school of short fiction, which includes such writers as Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, and Frederick Barthelme, among others. In her stories seemingly mundane yet absurd events are illuminated by a terse, laconic style that often relies on humor. Commended for her skill with dialogue, Robison is admired for her keen perception of the idiosyncrasies of contemporary American life. Remarking on Robison's career, a commentator for the Virginia Quarterly Review stated: "Acetylene bright, hip as any talk show host, greatly gifted, and flaky enough in her writing to be a role model for new talents … [Robison] has written some of the finest stories of our time, stories which will stand the test of time."

Biographical Information

Born January 14, 1949, in Washington, D.C., Robison is the daughter of an attorney and a psychologist. She attended Johns Hopkins University, where she earned a master's degree in 1977. A 1980 Guggenheim fellow and the recipient of other grants, Robison has taught English at Harvard University since 1981 and was named writer-in-residence at various universities during the mid-1980s. Her stories have appeared in such periodicals as Esquire and the New Yorker and were first collected in Days (1979). Following the publication of the novel Oh! in 1981, Robison wrote An Amateur's Guide to the Night (1983), her second collection of short fiction. In an interview she claimed that the combination of teaching and writing "doesn't work at all," so her writing career took a five-year hiatus before the publication of Believe Them, another short story collection, in 1988. Robison's latest book is the short novel Subtraction (1991).

Major Works

The stories in Days are full of characters who are apparently oblivious to both the bizarre and ordinary incidents of their lives. This collection is marked by a deadpan narrative tone that reflects the languor in the characters' lives. Oh!, Robison's first novel, centers on the internal dynamics of the Clevelands—an eccentric, wealthy family of alcoholics and drug abusers—and comically portrays the absurdity and alienation prevalent in contemporary American life. Notable among the stories featured in An Amateur's Guide to the Night are "The Wellman Twins," which concerns the vicious honesty shared by the twins, and "Yours," in which a dying man and his wife carve pumpkins. Each of the stories in Amateur's Guide are set in the Midwestern United States and feature such distinctly American venues as fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. Believe Them juxtaposes several vignettes illuminating the foibles of the upper middle class with tales revealing the surrealistic dimensions of ordinary events. The novel Subtraction is a love story involving an irresponsible husband and his devoted wife.

Critical Reception

Robison's fiction is often discussed in terms of "minimalism," a recent trend in American letters characterized by a pronounced emphasis on perception, visuality, and attention to minute detail. Described by Anne Tyler as "stripped, incisive," Robison's writing style has earned praise for its sparseness and innovative technique. Art Seidenbaum wrote that Robison "plays with words and people in a spare, almost ascetic way." This acclaimed detachment from her work, however, has also provoked persistent criticism. Larry McCaffery observed that Robison's "restraint and refusal to supply her incidents with a more conventionally dramatic shape occasionally produces stories that evoke a sense of 'So what?'" Yet most critics have applauded Robison's dexterity with dialogue and her ability to convince the reader that her characters and situations are indeed real. Others have detected the influence of television media in Robison's fiction, often likening it to turning the television on and off with a program in progress. "She is a master of line and texture," commented Joseph Coates, "who gets maximum information out of the glittering and intentionally deceptive surfaces of our image-dominated culture." Richard Eder concluded that Robison "is a powerful writer, and her best books have used a disciplined minimalism to emit, by constriction, some powerfully shaped emotions."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Days (short stories) 1979
Oh! (novel) 1981
An Amateur's Guide to the Night (short stories) 1983
Believe Them (short stories) 1988
Subtraction (novel) 1991

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 April 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Believe Them, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LVI, No. 7, April 1, 1988, p. 487.

[In the following review, the critic finds "some hints of Robison's comic gift" in Believe Them.]

Seven oh-so-trendy stories [in Believe Them] by a writer who, with Beattie, Carver, et al., has helped set the (mono) tone for hip contemporary fiction.

Most of these pieces are just that—snippets in search of context, of something to give them resonance and meaning. As they are, the only messages come from bumper stickers, T-shirts, and bathroom graffiti. And these bits of wacky wisdom seldom touch on the actual events at hand, if you can really call them events, since nothing much happens here. "Trying" strings together bits about an odd sort of girl (the daughter of liberal poverty lawyers) whose weirdness—mostly wisecracking outbursts during class—seems to be indulged by the nuns at her suburban Catholic school. Another spoiled young woman (in "Mirror") recalls the reason she's been friends all her life with the unmarried, pregnant girl she's visiting: they "remembered the same stuff." Robison displays a certain fondness for suburban family life: the brother recuperating back home after an unsuccessful foray to Hollywood ("While Home"); the children who turn the house upside down one night while the parents usher in yet another sibling at the hospital ("Seizing Control"); the young mother of three who "gets by" after her husband dies in a plane accident. The one excellent piece here, "Again, Again, Again," picks up the story—is there a novel gestating?—of "The Coach" from Robison's last collection (An Amateur's Guide to the Night). The quick wit that she flashed in her novel Oh! glimmers also in this saga of a college football coach, his artist wife, and their smart-lipped teen daughter as they settle into yet another new town. Remaining stories include two tales of soured affairs, and three of crumbling marriages.

Mostly drab and disposable stuff, with some hints of Robison's comic gift.

Richard Eder (review date 19 June 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hidden Pictures of Sorrow and Pain," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 19, 1988, pp. 3, 12.

[Eder is an American critic who has won a citation for excellence in reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle as well as a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. In the review below, he considers the "hidden messages" in the stories from Believe Them, concluding that the stories are "boundless in their emotion."]

Mary Robison's characters need to grieve and lament but they can't. They can only smile, be kind, be recklessly witty, and push enlightened self-mockery to suicidal extremes.

Sorrow and pain are underground messages in these finely...

(The entire section is 1164 words.)

Larry McCaffery (review date 31 July 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Errant Mom Hits Road," in New York Times Book Review, July 31, 1988, p. 12.

[Below, McCaffery discusses the strengths of Robison's stories in Believe Them.]

Certain reviewer catch phrases have become so closely associated with Mary Robison's writing that her work now rather resembles one of those boats at anchor whose surfaces have become indistinguishable under a mass of barnacles. And since it is the highly particularized surface features of her work that make Ms. Robison's fiction so distinct, the distorting effect of these critical buzzwords—"dispassionate voice," "stripped-down delivery," "deadpan" and, of course, the m-word ("minimalism")—has...

(The entire section is 1070 words.)

Ann-Marie Karlsson (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Hyperrealistic Short Story: A Postmodern Twilight Zone," in Criticism in the Twilight Zone: Postmodern Perspectives on Literature and Politics, edited by Danuta Zadworna-Fjellestad and Lennart Bjork, Almqvist & Wikell International, 1990, pp. 144-53.

[In the following essay, Karlsson discusses the features of "minimalism" as represented in the short stories of several writers, including Robison.]

In 1983 the British literary magazine Granta announced the birth of a new American writing which appeared to occupy territories yet unknown, a literary twilight zone. Bill Buford, the editor of Granta, proclaimed: "a new fiction seems to be...

(The entire section is 4560 words.)

Joseph Coates (review date 10 February 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Deceptive Surfaces," in Chicago Sunday Tribune, February 10, 1991, p. 13.

[In the review below, Coates praises Robison's achievement in Subtraction, calling her "a master … who gets maximum information out of the glittering and intentionally deceptive surfaces of our image-dominated culture."]

Mary Robison's Subtraction adds up either to the model novel of the '90s or one of the funniest, most erotically charged and satirically observant failed novels since those of the late Donald Barthelme, whose title of Maximum Minimalist she hereby inherits.

From the standpoint of the reader's enjoyment, it doesn't much matter which of...

(The entire section is 1059 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 17 February 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Parodies Lost," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 17, 1991, p. 3.

[In the following review, Eder argues that Subtraction is an "unsteady" parody in which Robison has "lost control of her material and emptied out along with it."]

All we know about Minnie is that she loves Mickey. But if all we know about Mickey is that Minnie loves him, then we know nothing about Mickey. And so we know nothing about Minnie.

The two lovers in Subtraction are pretty much what the title suggests. They are two empty parcels. They are wrapped expensively, and labeled with a note of self-parody. So we are not sure whether what we are getting...

(The entire section is 928 words.)

Douglas Bauer (review date 24 February 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "New Scars, New Stories, No Excuses," in New York Times Book Review, February 24, 1991, p. 10.

[Below, Bauer offers a mixed review of Subtraction.]

Mary Robison's fiction, with all its consistent strengths, seems to divide itself into two distinct categories. Much of her work offers trademark displays of formal daring, an idiosyncratic descriptive precision and a stylized conversational wit. But additionally, in such stories as "I Get By," "In the Woods" and the powerful "Seizing Control," a strong moral focus is apparent in the telling (a focus that does not come, it should be stressed, at the expense of her verbal snap and humor).

In these...

(The entire section is 831 words.)

Donna Rifkind (review date 17 May 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Highbrows and Lowlifers," in Book World—The Washington Post, May 17, 1991, p. 4.

[In the following review, Rifkind contends that Subtraction "would have had more narrative punch in a shorter form," concluding that the novel "does not manage to add up to much at all."]

Paige Deveaux is a Harvard professor and poet whose current work-in-progress is a long poem titled "Enantiotropy" (don't ask what it means—it doesn't matter). Her husband, Raf, is nothing but trouble: a faithless alcoholic who runs away from home whenever things get rough. When Paige leaves her cozy Cambridge house to search for Raf in his latest hideout, a seedy section of Houston,...

(The entire section is 759 words.)

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date Summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Subtraction, in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 67, No. 3, Summer, 1991, p. 96.

[In the following review, the critic finds Subtraction funny at times but "not funny enough" at others.]

Mary Robison, author of three highly regarded and highly praised collections of stories and one novel, Oh! (1981), may or may not be the muses darling, but has been, for sure, a greatly admired member-in-good-standing of the contemporary literary establishment. Acetylene bright, hip as any talk show host, greatly gifted, and flaky enough in her writing to be a role model for newer talents like Amy Hempel and Lorrie Moore, she has written some of...

(The entire section is 335 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Hooper, Brad. Review of Believe Them, by Mary Robison. Booklist 84, No. 20 (15 June 1988): 1709.

Claims that while "some readers may find her tedious; others will proclaim her brilliant."

Review of Subtraction, by Mary Robison. Kirkus Reviews LVIII, No. 24 (15 December 1990): 1703.

Finds Subtraction "a funny, beautifully written novel, dry and bubbly as good champagne."

Review of Believe Them, by Mary Robison. Publishers Weekly 233, No. 15 (15 April 1988): 76.


(The entire section is 173 words.)